Parents share concerns as West Fargo Public Schools considers building a special education only facility

WEST FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - Where Trisha Page’s son started is a far cry from where he is now.

“We’ve been blessed with amazing therapists, great schools. Great school teams. And so where they originally thought Kyle might never tie his shoes or speak – he is now wrestling varsity. He is in scouting, working on his eagle scout. And so 15 years later, we’ve seen major changes in him and his life,” Page says.

And she says a lot of his success comes from how he was treated by his teachers and classmates.

“We’ve had some bumpy roads and we’ve had some really good spots. Kyle has really thrived in the general education classroom with his regular teachers,” says Page. “His wrestling team – they have been phenomenal. The people are here for him, with him, those are the people he looks for at lunch.”

“For a kid who was never supposed to talk – and to have those supports, that’s a really, really huge blessing that we can’t even begin to say thank you enough for,” she continues.

But parents and advocates fear success stories like Kyle’s will come to an end – because West Fargo Schools is considering building a special education only facility connected to Heritage Middle School. The architectural mock-up shows the LRE-D facility would be connected to Heritage by a hallway. It features six classrooms (with space for future additions) and would serve middle school students with complex behaviors from West Fargo and Fargo.

“Fargo is moving forward with a K-5 facility, where we would be taking on and planning around this 6-8, grade 6-8, facility,” says Rachel Kjonaas, West Fargo’s Special Education Director. “The intent of creating a setting D, a least restrictive setting D, would be to keep our students within our community.”

“Children with disabilities – anytime you separate them and put them in a different area – that’s segregation,” says Jennifer Restemayer, a Family Consultant with Family Voices of North Dakota. “If we have a separate building for children with disabilities to go to – then they don’t have access to those typically developing peers at that same level. Also, they’re not in their neighborhood schools, so they’re not in the same school as their siblings. They’re not in the same schools as the kids they play with in their neighborhoods.”

And while parents and advocates fear this step will do much more harm than good, school district leaders disagree.

“Children learn best from their typically developing peers. And the intent of the federal law, IDEA, is to ensure that children with disabilities are able to have a free and appropriate public education along with their typically developing peers to the greatest extent possible,” Restemayer says. “I really believe that if we provide the supports that they need early, then it wouldn’t get to this point.”

“When a student is not doing well in a setting C, we run out of options to keep our students within a school setting. So our next option, which would be a setting D – which would mean a separate school – we don’t have that,” says Kjonaas.

Community members have other concerns as well - like how the district will staff the facility.

“One of the fears that parents have is that we’re going to be pulling some of our most skilled staff to have them work in this new segregated school. And then the children that are left in the neighborhood schools who need some supports now aren’t going to have that same level of support,” Restemayer says. “We don’t have a lot of BCBAs, or psychologists or the staff that we would need to help some of these children address their mental health. And if we had some of those staff in our neighborhood schools, we could support all children. But when we move the skilled staff that we have into one facility, then we’re taking away from the other kids.”

“We have some great community partnerships already - we haven’t had a problem with serving the students that we currently serve,” says Kjonaas. “Not to say that it wouldn’t happen, but we would work through those challenges.”

At this point, the facility is only a plan -- it hasn’t even been presented to the school board yet, and that’s why advocates and district staff both say now is the time to start talking.

“Right now, in those beginning planning stages, it’s very important for parents to be able to feel like they have a voice,” Restemayer says.

“I think the input from parents and stakeholders is imperative in our forward movement,” Kjonaas adds.

But even the idea of the district considering an LRE-D only facility is upsetting for some parents who say they see the benefit of kids learning together.

“That made my heart jump a little bit. Just the thought of him being away from the kids that have meant so much. That would be a nightmare. We used to segregate people in separate institutions. And they grew up chained to beds right here in North Dakota. And my son has never had that. He’s had people fighting for him the whole time. And so the idea of denying him those opportunities – his dreams of college, hopes for the future that he’s formed, his dreams – that’s a major gut punch. That is terrifying. Horrifying. And to know that we might be setting that stage for others makes me physically ill.”
“I don’t want that for anyone for a very good reason. My son is an ideal example,” she continues. “It’s important to recognize that the regular general education students appreciate their peers with special needs just as much as the students with special needs want to be with their regular peers.”

Right now, the school district is conducting a feasibility study to determine the need for the LRE-D facility and what types of supports it should have. The study will wrap up towards the end of May 2020.

Meanwhile, West Fargo’s School Board will discuss the plan to build a special education only facility during their fall workshop on November 18th.